Beginning anglers probably don’t give much thought to the overall composition of their leaders. With so much to learn and dissect, the novice focuses mostly on fly choice, fly rods, reels or lines. That’s fair. Because fly fishing is a complicated endeavor. And it makes sense to follow basic advice, grab an extruded, knotless leader from the fly shop and get to work on learning some things about fly fishing.
Then, somewhere down the winding path of a seasoned angler, we’re finally ready to consider the leader. With a fundamental understanding of casting, and some good ideas about trout behavior, we start asking questions about the means of delivery. We finally start to consider the leader, realizing that leader composition is the most important element in presenting the fly.
What follows is not a comprehensive consideration of leader design. Instead, this is a continuation of the Troutbitten short series, Know Your Weights and Measures. The goal here is to highlight the stats to be understood — to give a wide perspective of what matters in leader design and how materials and construction affect the angler’s ability to deliver and drift the fly.
Let’s do it . . .
Material diameter and material stiffness: these are the two qualities that come into focus. And along with length, these properties dictate the performance of a leader.
Breaking strength matters very little. Certainly, it’s good to know that our fly is tied to four pound or ten pound test, because that fact dictates how hard we fight a trout or pull on a greedy tree limb. But given the wide variety in leader materials, breaking strength has virtually no predictable correlation with diameter or stiffness.
Material diameter and material stiffness. That’s what matters. And these two qualities determine a leader’s turnover power and the amount of potential drag.
Turnover vs Drag
Remember this: At the heart of every good leader design is an intentional balance between turnover and drag.
Thicker and stiffer material gives more power and push to a leader. 2X carries the power of our cast with more force to the end of the line, while 6X has far less punch. (Likewise, a thicker butt section carries more power than a thinner one.)
But that same 2X tippet drags more than 6X. And it may create that drag in three different places: on the surface, under the surface and in the air. Being both thicker and stiffer, 2X is more influenced by water currents than 6X. Likewise, the thicker 2X simply weighs more, so it hangs more and sags more in the air. And as always, sag equals drag.
A well-designed leader is a calculated balance between the counterparts of turnover and drag.
Diameter and Stiffness
Most anglers focus first on the tippet. And that’s a great place to start.
We should know the diameter of our tippet but consider its flexibility and stiffness too. Rio Suppleflex nylon, for example, is much softer than Cortland Premium Fluorocarbon of the same diameter. So it carries less turnover power but also incurs less influence from the water.
This kind of education starts by making no assumptions. On your next few trips to the river, spend a half hour testing things for yourself. Tie your fly to 2X and then 6X. You’ll see quickly that the results are undeniable. And knowing how to match your tippet to the fly size and/or fly weight is a skill gained from these kinds of tests on the water.
Remember, terminal tippet is not the only consideration. And the full leader should be understood. So try using thick butt sections vs thin ones. On-the-stream testing, without bias, is the best way to gain a fuller picture.
In my favorite Harvey dry leader, I often adjust the last three tippet pieces on the water. For example, if I swap out from a #18 Blue Winged Olive to what I call Light Dry Dropper, with a #14 X-Caddis paired with a #20 WD40, then I cut back the 3X, extend the 4X and finish with a piece of 5X of about 24 inches. Then I trail with 6X flouro to the small WD40. Without these adjustments, I will not get the preferred s-curves to the dry fly.
This example is not for you to slavishly imitate, but to see what might be necessary to change on the water. How do I know what to alter in my rig? It comes from experimentation. I remember reading George Harvey’s explanation of how to adjust leaders for each fly. But try as I might, I didn’t understand the process until I put it into practice. It takes an advanced angler’s mindset and a willingness to adjust.
Of course, there are keys to understanding leaders and lengths too. The longer, softer and smaller the diameter of a material, the less power it has for turnover. And remember the corollary: thinner diameters take on less drag from currents, on the surface or below it.
All of this is equally important for underwater presentation of nymphs and streamers.
But I also prefer a Mono Rig butt section that is thick enough to be powerful in the cast. Turnover is paramount to me. So I’m not a not a fan of micro-thin butt sections, as they are underpowered, and they encourage lobbing more than casting of the flies.
Likewise, I build my standard sighter from materials that are a little stiffer and more powerful than the bi-color material found in fly shops. Then, I often add a length of the bi-color material to extend my sighter, during times when I’m tight lining further away.
A Word On Taper
Tapering a leader reduces the power created from a fly line. That’s its job — to dissipate power evenly.
This makes a lot of sense for presenting dry flies fine and far off. But it makes very little sense for many underwater presentations.
This understanding seems to have taken hold in the streamer world, as most of the recommended steamer leaders these days have very little taper, being composed of just a few diameters at most. But this is not the case with many nymphing leaders, especially for a tight line.
I do not want long tapers in my tight line leaders. When I’m casting a Mono Rig or even a euro line, I want to get all the power possible from these thin lines. So I don’t want a long taper. Remember, tapers are for dissipating power. But I want turnover power, and I’m trying to get that from a relatively thin line. People tend to take standard leader design principles over to tight line leaders. And in my opinion, that’s a mistake.
Understanding the diameter and stiffness of the materials in your leader is critical to taking the next step as an angler, because nothing affects the performance of our flies more than the leader itself. Knowing the composition of the leader, and adapting it with intention to specifically suit your own goals, is at the heart of next-level fishing.
All of these weights and measures are intertwined. And in the last part of this Troutbitten short series, I’ll address what we should understand about flies and weights.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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